WASHINGTON – In 1960, only five percent of children were born out of wedlock. By 2010, that number rose to 40 percent. At a Wednesday panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, experts talked about what this "new normal," as The New York Times called it, means for the American family, religions and economy.
There needs to be a larger conversation about the impact of the changing family structure, from the norm of parents who get married, stay married and raise children together to the many alternatives, such as unmarried, divorced and remarried parents, argued Nick Schulz, a former AEI fellow who wrote Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure for AEI Press.
Talking about family issues can be uncomfortable, Schulz added, so he understands why, for instance, some economists might avoid looking at changing family structures as one possible explanation for certain economic outcomes. Schulz recalled a conversation with an economist friend in which he suggested looking at changing family structure as a explanation for the problem his friend was addressing. His friend responded that nothing can be done about the collapse of the family so there is no point in looking at it.
"I thought that was striking," Schulz said. "If you look at a problem and you want to make beneficial change, you want to identify what the problem is."
There are many issues that relate to the well being of the poor, Schulz said, but the dramatic transformation of the American family must also play a role, and, thus, must also be part of the discussion.
Schulz was joined on the panel by W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, and Mary Eberstadt, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Wilcox focused on how men, especially poor, less educated and working class men, have been impacted by changing family structures.
Men have lost their connection to the key social institutions of work, religion and marriage, Wilcox said, that provide them with their financial, moral and social needs. Declines in employment, religious participation and marriage are seen among all income groups, but the declines have been even greater among men without a college degree, and these changes are hurting them the most.
Wilcox cited research showing that men who have a full-time job, attend religious services regularly and get and stay married are more likely to stay out of poverty, faithful to their wife, forgive others, be happy, be healthy, and stay connected to their kids throughout their lives.
While more research needs to be done, Wilcox said there is some research to suggest that the changing family structures, or "new normal," of American life plays a role in the "de-institutionalization" of men from work, religion and marriage. Men raised in intact families are more likely to graduate from college, attend religious services and get married.
Eberstadt spoke about the relationship between family and religion. After World War II, she said, there was a "religion boom" that went along with the Baby Boom, which was preceded by a "marriage boom."
"The baby boom and religious boom fueled one another," she explained. "Indeed, each trend powered and reinforced the other." Eberstadt also quoted fellow panelist Wilcox and added, "children drive people to Church."
The reason married couples attend church more, she said, is that "people seek out a like minded community to situate their children" because "parenthood is overwhelming and they need help with it." And, "being mothers and fathers transports people into a religious frame of mind." Eberstadt also received some laughter from the audience when she added, "churches are founded on the idea of self-sacrifice," and "parents find the idea of self-sacrifice consonant with their everyday lives."
The decline of marriage and family goes hand in hand with a rise in the secular welfare state, according to Eberstadt. She mentioned the example of Scandinavia, which, by many measures, is the most secular region in the world. It is also the region that has pioneered the welfare state.
Video of the discussion can be viewed at the AEI website.